Nicholas Hytner: Noises off

In the first of a new series written by leading figures in the arts world, the director of the National Theatre argues there has never been a better time to win over hearts and minds

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A revolution in government thinking about the arts has left its practitioners in an unfamiliar position. Suddenly we find ourselves almost buried under an avalanche of government policies, position papers and reports, all telling us how big a contribution we have to make to the new century. Even the Tories have become enthusiasts, their arts team vociferously supportive of a flourishing cultural life, the shadow Chancellor a regular theatre-goer, and their leader (unlike at least one of his predecessors) giving no sign of being ideologically opposed to everything except The Phantom of the Opera.

Most inspiring has been the almost universal acceptance that there is intrinsic value to the performing arts and to the overwhelmingly popular network of galleries and museums across the country. The Department for Culture has explicitly abandoned its emphasis on targets; and through the review by Sir Brian McMaster ("Supporting Excellence in the Arts") it has signalled that its chief concern is with the profound fulfilment that awaits anyone or any society that engages wholeheartedly with its artists.

This is more than merely a relief to someone like me who runs a theatre. I am here to put on great shows – shows that move people, shows that enlighten them about the world they live in and the world inside themselves, shows that bring them together in communal recognition of the tragic, the enraging, the hilarious and the transcendent, shows that people want to see and shows that we think they should see.

Of course the proposition that we are here to produce art as good as we're able prompts all sorts of questions. Who says what's good? Who is it for? Are we funding the artist or the audience? How much do we value tradition, and how much do we experiment? The list is endless, but the trick is always to return to the original proposition; and the Government's (and Opposition's) embrace of good art as something good in itself will have wonderfully liberating consequences.

We are unequivocally enthusiastic about the Children's Minister Ed Balls's commitment to offer every child five hours of arts and culture every week. There isn't an arts organisation in the country that doesn't have a vigorous education department, and the more support we have from the schools, the more culturally enfranchised new generations of schoolchildren will be. Our experience is that as soon as you open the door to art that is difficult and fulfilling, the demand for it is limitless.

Our commitment to the education of the young is long-standing. More recently, we have become aware of a powerful hunger among our adult audience for a deeper and wider experience. I was fascinated to read a recent speech by John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, in which he talked about a "quiet revolution in informal learning". While Ed Balls has recognised that "participating in cultural activities can have a huge impact on a child's development", John Denham has talked about "meeting the basic human desire for intellectual stimulation and enlightenment". Adult education, he thinks, is about more then enabling people to develop the skills and qualifications necessary to get better jobs: "It's about adults building social bonds, by sharing their interests and passions."

We've been more or less full at the National Theatre for the last few years, but we've noticed that there is a limitless appetite for more than just the show: for pre-performance lectures, question-and-answer sessions, and opportunities for the audience and artists to engage with each other. Not so long ago, you visited a museum to gaze in awe. The aesthetic experience was sufficient unto itself. Nowadays the audio-guide is standard and the great exhibitions serve as much as detailed and visceral introductions to strange worlds as they do as displays of beautiful objects. No one leaves the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum feeling merely that they have seen wonderful things.

The audio-guide might stand as a metaphor for what the performing arts could do. So might DVD extras. It's time now to create new ways for audiences of all ages to participate and to understand more. Digital technology gives us tremendous opportunities to enable the communication of complex and difficult ideas and to build bridges between artist and audience. A performance of challenging new work or of work rooted in specific historical circumstances can be made transparent by creative use of the internet.

At the same time, we can respond to the growing desire of our audiences to join in. Theatre crafts are fascinating both to those who love the theatre and to those who are daunted by it. The National Theatre's education department has been approached recently by physics teachers interested in the technical side of what we do. There's as much magic in scene-painting, costume-making and stage lighting as there is in acting, singing and dancing.

We have arrived at a place where the performance of great art can go hand in hand with deepening our audience's experience of it, explaining how we make it and why we do it, and letting them join in with it. It's a good place to be.

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